Reyna watched the six men stalking through her campsite from her hiding place in a tiny cave. The cave sat beneath the trunk of an ancient catalpa tree covered with foliage that climbed and wove around the huge trunk. She was good at hiding and watched them without making a sound.
The men were dirty and unkempt and seemed to be looking for something they could use. Reyna didn’t leave her important supplies out where they could be scavenged. She kept them safely hidden at her main camp site only she knew the location of. Her father had taught her well. “Leave the campsite looking lived in but never leave out anything of import for the scavengers to find, Reyna-girl, and never let them know you’re female.”
Experience and her father had taught her these men were likely fugitives from the Intergalactic Federation, criminals or dissidents. It didn’t really matter which; both were dangerous to a woman alone. Everyone was suspect so she just did her best to stay out of sight. Now that her father was gone, she couldn’t even risk the luxury of a conversation with another person.
Reyna knew this forested mountain like the back of her hand. She had stashes all over it as well as places to hide. She’d lived in the mountains for over twenty-five years and she’d managed to live without being seen in the two years since her father had died. He’d been shot by one of the scavengers right after tucking her out of sight. If he’d trusted her to take care of herself he would have been able to hide too, but he said he’d had to make sure she was safe first. He hadn’t died quickly and she’d watched from her hiding place as the scavenger had slowly eaten an apple while he watched her father die then dropped the core on his body like he was of no consequence.
She missed her father so much it was a physical ache. She missed him and the stories he’d told her of his childhood when the people on Earth had no idea the Intergalactic Federation existed or that there were even other planets with life beyond their own planet. People had lived in cities and lived their lives openly. Though there were bad people it wasn’t like now, where you had to fear every stranger. People knew their neighbors and had friends but then the great wars had come and most of the planet was destroyed. Distrust became the norm and friendships were a thing of the past.
By the time the Intergalactic Federation sent ambassadors to meet with the people of Earth, there wasn’t much left of their civilization. The leaders in place eagerly signed on to join the Federation to protect what was left of the planet and develop a future for their people. Reyna’s grandfather had brought his family into the mountains where he’d grown up. He was mistrustful of the aliens that now seemed to suddenly be everywhere from all different parts of the galaxy. Her family hadn’t fought against joining the Federation; they’d simply opted to disappear and live their lives the best they could in hiding.
By the time Reyna had been born, the only people other than her family on the mountain were basically criminals, or scavengers as her people called them. Slowly every member of her family had been killed by the scavengers, so her father had trained her from a very early age to blend in with her surroundings in an effort to protect her. Now he was gone too so she was all alone.
One of the men was picking through a knapsack that she’d left hanging from a tree full of poison berries. She smiled to herself when he shoved a handful into his mouth, barely chewing them before swallowing. He was reaching for another handful when he froze, his eyes going wide.
“Hunter!” he cried, abandoning the berries and picking up his axe before running away through the trees.
Reyna made a face, disappointed he hadn’t finished the berries. At least he’d swallowed enough to give him a hell of a bellyache, though it probably wouldn’t kill him. One by one the other five scavengers followed the other man into the woods. She wondered who the hunter was they seemed so frightened of and decided if he was coming she better stay put for a while before leaving her safe hiding place.
Suddenly a huge man was standing in the middle of the campsite. He hadn’t made a sound and she nearly gasped aloud when she saw him. He had to be at least seven and half feet tall, his thickly muscled body covered in a sleeveless shirt tucked into tight pants that outlined his broad thighs. Weapons covered his body in a multitude of sheaths and holders.
Reyna counted at least ten different knives of varying lengths and five guns holstered on his hips, shoulders, and under one arm. His hair was cropped close to his head, his square jaw had a scar down the left side. The man would have been handsome if not for the totally dispassionate look on his face as he perused her campsite. His eyes skimmed over her hiding place slowly then returned, looking right at her. She felt her own eyes widen as his bright green eyes seemed to see her then looked away, and she couldn’t help the soft sigh of relief that escaped her.
His eyes were strangely beautiful. Such a brilliant green he couldn’t be human, and the pupils had a vertical slit like a cat’s eyes with an exotic slant that only added to their beauty. She could have gotten lost in the laser sharpness of his gaze and it had been an almost physical relief when he’d looked away.
Reyna froze when once again those eyes seemed to focus on her hiding place, the look on his face thoughtful. Then he turned away and then began to straighten up her campsite. She frowned as she watched. He was building a fire like he’d decided to claim her camp for his own. She was trapped in her position until he left, so she glared as he made himself a comfortable place to sit and began to clean a rabbit he’d pulled out of his pack and then hung it over the fire to roast.
She tried to ignore the pangs of hunger stirring in her belly at the smell of the cooking rabbit. It had been at least a day since she’d eaten. Reyna had known the scavengers were near and hadn’t been able to let her guard down enough to eat. She closed her eyes when her stomach growled loudly, praying he hadn’t heard.
“You might as well come out and eat, female. I know you are there.”
Her eyes widened at the deep, well-modulated tones from the big man. She instinctively shrank further back into her little cave, making herself as small as possible.
“I will not harm you, though it would irritate me to have to come pull you from your cave. It would be best if you came to me of your own accord, little one. I will ensure you are safe from the scavengers that you originally hid from,” the man told her conversationally as he leaned back on his elbows and watched the fire rather than her hiding place.
Hale studied the fire as he waited for the female to respond. As he sat, her sweet scent wrapped around him, filling his senses. He was a Cantari Hunter. His people were prized for their relentlessness and the fact that they were always successful tracking and locating of criminals and enemies to the Federation. They were warriors with unique abilities that made them perfect hunters and because his race only produced male children and the Federation feared the extinction of his people, the Cantari were expected to claim mates where they found them on Federation-affiliated planets to ensure the Hunters remained an asset.
He had never expected to find his mate on Earth when he was in the midst of hunting dangerous criminals. He’d been enraged to see what the six men had done in the human settlement at the base of the mountain. When Hale had seen the bodies of the two young females raped and beaten to death he’d known he would kill the scavengers when he found them. The girls had been little more than children.
Children and females were both to be protected and cherished. According to Cantari law any male that harmed a woman or a child did not deserve to live.
Hale wished he could allow his mate to get used to him and come to him on her own but her sweet scent mingling with the tainted smell of the human males he hunted was almost more than he could stand. She was alone and it was not safe for her to remain so with the men he was hunting on the mountain.
She was his to claim… his to protect… his to love. He felt the beast that had always slept inside him stir as if it was stretching awake. The new awareness was startling, as for as long as he could remember, the cats that lived inside his people had lain dormant. There were stories of the hunters of old being able to shift into cat form but the ability had been lost when their home world was destroyed and his people relocated to the world of Cantari.
It was strange to feel his cat stirring; though he’d never felt the beast before, he instinctively recognized it. He felt whole in a way he’d never before experienced; all of his senses seemed to be heightened, especially his sense of smell. The intoxicating scent of his female wrapped around him like an invisible caress.
Hale wondered if it was the planet or the female that had awakened his inner cat. It was an intriguing mystery. He was anxious to see the woman who had already tied him in knots. Would she be as alluring as her scent?
“I grow weary of waiting, female. Come to me,” he commanded. The scavengers were close and he needed to get her to a position of safety before he pursued them further.
He heard her crawl from her hiding place at the base of the large tree and almost smiled but instead Hale pulled the rabbit from the fire and turned to offer her a piece.
She stood a few feet away from him, glaring at him. She was so small in stature that even sitting he was almost as tall as she was. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall but her compact body had full womanly curves that he was looking forward to exploring more closely. Dark curly hair swirled around her shoulders in an untamed mass, framing small even features and large dark blue eyes. The sight of her hit him with a jolt of lust he fought hard to contain; he couldn’t risk frightening his mate with the passion already heating his loins.
“I decided I might as well come out since you obviously knew where I was,” the girl said as she snatched the rabbit from his hand.
Hale decided the scowl on her elfin features was really quite adorable, though he wouldn’t allow her rudeness to continue. “You should have come out the first time I called you, little one.”
She continued to hold the rabbit without eating it. “Why should I have? I have no reason for a hunter to be after me. This is my camp you took over.”
He looked around dismissively. “This is your secondary camp you set up to throw off the scavengers. I saw only poison berries and bad fruits.”
A look of wariness came over her face and she began to back away from him.
Hale stood as her alarm increased. “Do not run from me, mate.”
“M-mate?” Her eyes grew huge as she dropped the rabbit. “You’re crazy.”
Then she bolted through the trees as quickly as a fawn. What his little female didn’t realize was that the chase was a natural part of the courtship dance for a Cantari Hunter and she’d just become his prey.
Prey he would not allow to escape him.
Reyna’s heart slammed against her breast as she hurried through the underbrush and dove into another of her caves to escape the big warrior hot on her heels. She tried to ignore the way her body had responded to his possessive words. Something about him calling her mate in that admonishing tone sent tendrils of heat through her body. She shook off the treacherous feelings.
She was no man’s mate!
She had no need of a man or anyone. Reyna had done just fine on her own and would continue to do so. As she waited for him to pass by her little cave, she rested her head on her arms and willed her heartbeat to slow down. Her stomach growled again and she wished she hadn’t dropped the rabbit.
Reyna was lying in the small enclosure thinking about the rabbit when a large hand closed around her ankle and she was sliding backwards out of the cave.
“No!” She kicked at the hand around her ankle with her other foot as she was pulled unceremoniously from her hiding place until she was dangling upside down at least a foot from the ground.
“Put me down, you asshole!” Reyna twisted her body to and fro and continued to kick out with her other foot in an effort to free herself.
“I think not,” the big warrior told her and then he swung her up as he released her leg. Reyna screamed as she found herself airborne only to be caught and cradled in his strong arms as gravity pulled her down.
She gaped up into his handsome face for the space of a heartbeat then pulled her hand back and slugged him as hard as she could. She refused to give into the part of herself that wanted to curl into his body heat and enjoy being held.
He gave a muttered curse but did not put her down. Instead he marched determinedly toward a fallen log where he sat down and slung her face down over his lap. “You will cease to fight me, mate.”
His command was accompanied by several hard slaps to the seat of her upturned bottom. The stinging heat left in the wake of his gigantic palm was almost enough to bring tears to her eyes but she managed to blink them back as outrage filled her. “Don’t you dare spank me!”
“I will dare a lot more than this, mate, should you continue to risk your safety by fighting me,” he told her as he continued to deliver swat after swat to the seat of her jeans.
“Owwww! Stop it!” Reyna tried her best to wriggle of his lap but he held her easily in place for his punishing palm. As he spanked her, the heat in her bottom grew rapidly but it was the answering throb in her clit that alarmed her the most. Why did this man stir her when no other had before?
“Are you ready to stop this foolishness, little one? Or do I need to remove your pants and try this on your bare backside?” he asked in an almost conversational tone.
The words bare and backside penetrated her anger and Reyna froze in place. She could not allow him to remove her pants and possibly discover the embarrassing wetness seeping from her core. “Fine! I give! I won’t fight you anymore right now!”
“Good girl,” he said and lifted her to sit on his thigh. “Now what is your name, little female?”
“Reyna,” she said begrudgingly.
“Reyna.” He said her name as if he were tasting it on his tongue. That thought combined with the heat in her bottom and sent a shiver through her nether regions—a feeling she tried her best to ignore. “I am called Hale of the Cantari.”
“Okay, Hale of the Cantari. Can I get off your lap now?” She crossed her arms over her chest and raised a brow at him in askance.
“Where do you intend to go, my Reyna?” Hale asked her.
“I am not your anything, Hale the canterer,” Reyna told him smartly.
“Cantari,” he corrected her.
“Whatever. Can I go now?” she asked.
“No. My Reyna, you must stay with me, your mate. At least until I find someplace safe for you while I finish my hunt,” Hale told her.
“I am not your mate,” Reyna spat angrily. She had to fight the longing within her to belong to another; the idea of never being alone again tempted her. She was so very lonely. Anger was the only refuge she had from these feelings.
“Are you already mated?” he asked.
“No, I have no mate. I do not want a mate or a man or even a woman. I don’t even want a dog. So let me be on my way,” she told him, then kicked herself mentally as she realized telling him she already had a mate would have been a much better plan.
“It wouldn’t have worked to tell me you were mated already, little one. I can smell you are innocent,” Hale told her in a matter-of-fact voice.
Reyna studied him curiously. “What do you mean you can smell my innocence?”
“I can smell everything about you, my mate. I smell your innocence, your loneliness, the salt of tears you will not allow to fall… I smell how tired you are of this hard existence. Your need of laughter and love,” he told her earnestly, a soft expression she didn’t completely understand on his face.
Panic built in her chest at the accuracy of his words. He saw or smelled entirely too much for her peace of mind. “Let me go, you big caterering bastard!”
Hale held her easily in place so she leaned forward and bit him hard on the arm that wrapped her waist until she tasted blood. He cursed and let her go for a moment and she ran for all she was worth.
She only got about three steps before she was caught up once more in his arms. “That’s Cantari bastard, young lady.”
Reyna twisted and bucked in every direction she could to escape his grasp but he held her close, crooning to her in a language she didn’t understand until she wore herself out and collapsed against him with a sob.
Hale turned her against him until she was cradled against his chest like a child, crying quietly against his shoulder, feeling utterly defeated. She couldn’t fight him and the need to be held, cherished. His arms enveloping her in his warmth made her feel safe for the first time in years. She would be a fool to believe this was real.
“I’m sorry I frightened you, little mate. It was not my intention but I realize now my words made you feel too vulnerable and exposed,” he said, walking through the trees and breathing easily as though chasing her twice and holding her writhing form had been nothing out of the ordinary for him.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Reyna muttered through her tears. She hated to show weakness to anyone and this man definitely made her feel weak.
“You should be afraid, Reyna. There are dangerous men in these mountains. I saw what they did to two girls from the human settlement. I will have you safe,” Hale told her firmly.
“I was safe until you came along,” Reyna said fiercely.
“I found your hiding spots easily,” he pointed out.
“Apparently you smelled my anguish or some shit like that,” she said darkly.
“I do not like the language you use, mate.” The teacher-like tone of voice irritated her.
“Too bad, Hale the Kale, I like to cuss and spit and I could probably drink you under the table.” Reyna had never had anything alcoholic to drink but Hale didn’t know that.
He tsked at her again and the sheer vulnerability she felt in his arms filled her with a fear that she couldn’t ignore. She was terrified by the part of her that wanted to simply curl up against him and give herself to him completely. It was madness and sure to lead to her destruction.
The fear gave her strength to renew her battle and she swung her head back hard, hitting him in the mouth at the same time she twisted her body and kneed him in the groin. Hale gave a startled yelp and momentarily lost his hold on her writhing body.
It was all the chance Reyna needed; she was on her feet and fleeing through the trees once more. She stayed low with the underbrush as she ran, knowing she didn’t dare stop at any of her little caves. The maddening hunter would simply sniff her out. Her only chance was to stay ahead of him so she kept moving.
Hopefully the knee to the groin would slow him down for a while, long enough for her to get far enough ahead to avoid recapture. She ignored the part of her that wanted to turn around and run back into his arms, as well as the way her traitorous body reacted to him. Those damn cat’s eyes of his and the fresh scent of pine and man that wrapped itself around her like a cloak in his presence made something inside her go molten and liquid heat filled her loins.
“No!” she yelled to the world at large, completely frustrated with her thoughts and the visions of him taking her from behind like an animal on the forest floor. This was not who she was! She was not a woman who needed or wanted a man or a man’s touch. She didn’t need anyone!
She chanted it over and over in her head, hoping that soon she would believe it was true. Her very survival depended on it.
Reyna was so lost in her worries about Hale and his life-altering presence she forgot to be vigilant and pay attention to her surroundings and was completely unprepared when she rounded a tree and ran straight into the scavenger who’d eaten the berries.
The collision landed her at the man’s feet as the rancid scent of his unwashed body filled her nostrils, the odor so strong she had to fight the urge to gag.
The man clutched his belly as he stared down at her. “You’re the little bitch who left those berries for me to find. I’ve thrown up three times since I had that handful of berries and had to stop behind at least six different trees. The other left me behind except for Tink but he only stayed with me on account he’s my brother.”
She began to crab walk away from the man but came up against another pair of legs directly behind her. “I don’t think so.” The new man she guessed was Tink grabbed a fistful of her hair, using his hold on it to lift her to stand in front of him. “I got her, Gamer.”
Reyna fought the urge to scream as pain burned in her scalp.
“Good. I think I’m finally over the worst of whatever those berries did to me so in about thirty minutes or so I’ll be ready to learn her about what happens to tricksters,” he said, giving her a bleary-eyed leer before he sank down to lean against the base of a tree.
Tink grinned, revealing a mouth full of rotten teeth as he leaned down to whisper in her ear, “You hear that, girlie? We are gonna learn you on how to treat a man, or rather how to treat two. And we’re gonna learn you till you can’t walk.” He laughed and his fetid breath made her want to retch.
Reyna tried to twist away from him but he simply pulled her closer and squeezed her till she lost her air. He sat down against another tree, bringing her to lean against him and when he released her enough she took a huge gulp of air tainted by the smell of him. To ensure she couldn’t get away, the man wrapped his legs around hers and kept his arms around her middle in a mockery of an embrace between lovers. Cocooned as she was against him, she couldn’t move and any thoughts of escape were laughable.
“You gonna cry?” Tink asked her, excitement in his voice. “I like it when girls cry.”
She closed her eyes and prayed her hunter’s keen sense of smell could still find her with their rank bodies in such close proximity to hers. Reyna knew he would punish her but found the thought strangely welcoming and the idea of him possessing her to claim her utterly wasn’t nearly as frightening as it had been previously.
She knew she belonged to the hunter and had really known it from the moment she saw him. His body called to hers and his scent had filled her senses and soothed her even while she fought him.
Reyna only hoped he would hurry. She reminded herself she just had to survive these two men until he found her. She fought the hopeless feeling swamping her at the thought of them touching what belonged only to Hale.
She didn’t know how long she was trapped by Tink’s body but a whistling sound was the only warning that her Cantari Hunter had found them. The sound of a knife cutting the air came closely by her ear and then Tink went completely limp.
Reyna looked over her shoulder to find a knife handle protruding from his forehead between his wide open staring eyes, the blade of the knife imbedded in the tree behind his head. She scrambled quickly away from the man’s body only to have Gamer catch her by the arm and jerk her back to her feet as he looked wildly around.
Hale appeared between two tall trees like an avenging angel. “You will take your filthy hands from my mate, human.”
Gamer kept his hold on her arm and fisted his other hand in her hair. “You come any closer and I’ll snap her neck like a twig.”
Hale simply stared at the man dispassionately and then in a lightning fast movement he released another two knives, one going through Gamer’s right ear and the other through his left, the force of the throws making the man release his hold on Reyna and driving him backwards to pin the blades in the tree directly behind them.
Gamer screamed in pain, his hands cupping his injured ears as he stared at the giant Hunter in horror. “My ears! You stabbed my ears!”
“You threatened my woman and you murdered the girls from the human settlement at the base of the mountain.” Hale’s tone was implacable and completely emotionless.
Her mouth dry, Reyna watched the exchange from her position on her knees as she waited for the laser intensity of those cat’s eyes to land on her.
She didn’t have long to wait before those oddly beautiful green eyes pinned her in place. “Are you harmed?”
She wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the sudden chill but shook her head wordlessly. He nodded then walked to his prisoner, attaching a collar around the man’s neck to tie him to the tree. “You will remain here while I care for my female.”
Hale turned to Reyna and scooped her up into his arms to carry her away from the area that now smelled of death. “Hale, I…”
“I want no words from you at this moment, female.” His tone brooked no argument.
She felt a flutter in her tummy in response to his words as he moved them quickly through the trees until they were at least a mile away from where he’d left the two men. Hale set her on her feet and then began to strip her clothing from her body until she was completely naked before him. Reyna shivered more from the way he was looking at her than the cold.
He ran his hands over every part of her mechanically as he checked her for injury and didn’t speak until he had assured himself she was unharmed. “You put yourself in harm’s way and almost paid with your life.”
Tears filled her eyes at the sternness of his words and her shoulders slumped. “I know I did and I’m sorry.”
Hale sighed. “While I am glad you regret your actions, I cannot allow you to go unpunished, mate, or unclaimed. Once I have fully mated you, it will be easier for you to accept my rules.”
Reyna wasn’t sure of that but she was ready to accept him and his punishment so she simply nodded, surrendering herself to his will.
He wasted no time going down on one knee and pulling her face down across it so her body dangled over his long leg and her bottom arched high to receive his correction. His hand fell hard and fast, making her howl from the first swat.
Again and again Hale’s hand fell as she yelped and begged for mercy but he didn’t stop until her backside felt like she’d sat on a camp stove and burned her butt bad. It was hot and swollen but the heat also seemed to be radiating to other areas and her arousal was trickling down the insides of her thighs.
“Are you going to behave yourself now, mate?”
Reyna sniffled as another hard swat caught her right on the crease where her bottom and thigh met. That area felt so scorched she wasn’t sure she’d ever sit comfortably again. “Yes, sir.”
Then his hand became caressing as it slid over the hot tender flesh he’d so thoroughly punished, making her groan in appreciation. “Are you ready to accept me as your mate?”
She licked her lips and looked up over her shoulder at him. “Yes, Hale, my hunter.”
Hale placed her on the forest floor, the smell of leaves and earth surrounding them as she waited for him on her hands and knees. The scene played out exactly as it had in her head. He would take her this way, filling her from behind and marking her as his for all time.
He sank to his knees behind her and urged her legs apart, and then she felt his tongue sliding through her wet slit as he licked from her clit all the way to her anus in one long stroke. He growled appreciatively, the vibration sending another jolt of desire through her body. “Another time I will enjoy feasting on you here, mate, but now I must make you mine.”
Reyna found herself instinctively pressing her chest to the ground and moving her legs even further apart as he came up over her. She shivered as the broad head of his shaft teased against her tight opening and couldn’t help pressing back against him.
His hand came around to stroke her clit, making a frisson of fire shoot from her clit to the place where he was slowly sinking inside of her and stretching her wide. “Oooh… Please, Hale… please…” she cried, feeling like she would die if he didn’t fill her completely in the next moment.
His other hand slapped her tender bottom, sending another jolt of pleasure through her. “Patience, mate,” he said as his body eased back out almost all the way and then drove back inside, each inward thrust filling her with more of his delicious cock and teasing her sensitive inner walls. Then she felt him come up against the barrier of her innocence and this time when he withdrew he drove back in hard, breaking the tiny membrane that was the proof of her virginity.
Reyna moaned as pleasure and pain seemed to twine together and hold her up on the precipice of something she didn’t completely understand, she only knew she wanted more. This time Hale didn’t withdraw; instead he kept pushing inside until she felt his balls pressing against her entrance and her tight channel felt almost unbearably stretched.
Hale stroked her back as her body became accustomed to him, his fingers continuing to stroke that little bundle of nerves that slicked her passage even more for him. Soon Reyna was moaning and rocking her body back and forth in an effort to get some friction.
That was when he began to move, pulling almost completely out and then slamming back inside as his fingers continued to tweak and worry her swollen little nub. Hale’s free arm wrapped around her waist and lifted her back to his chest as he pumped in and out of her without mercy, a hand coming up to cup her left breast and pinch at her nipple.
“You are mine, Reyna of the mountain. I claim you as my mate for now and always.” Hale said the words just as his teeth sank into the place where her shoulder met her neck and he drove his cock in deep.
She exploded as his teeth pierced her skin, the pleasure becoming almost more than she could bear as he continued to take her without mercy, driving her from one peak straight into another until she completely shattered around him and he spilled his seed inside her, their cries mingling into the sky.
They lay under the canopy of trees curled together, both loath to move and disturb the utter peace of the moment. Finally Hale stood and then helped Reyna to her feet. He kissed her tenderly as he stroked her cheek. “I must return to the two we left up the hill.”
Hale dressed her gently then took her to one of the small caves she often hid inside. “I would ask that you wait for me here, my mate. I would not have you see what I must do.”
Reyna nodded and crawled inside the small cave, actually thinking to take a nap while she waited for him.
His big hand stroked her hair. “I will return for you, mate.”
“I will be waiting,” she said softly.